Quick thoughts on innovation

When you are in technology PR for a long time, you can’t help but feel a little jaded about the usage of ‘innovation’. New feature? Innovation. New function? Innovation. Slight upgrade? Innovation. A little faster? Innovation. It’s easy to slap it on anything that moves in the technology world, and it is done too often.

But what exactly does innovation mean?

The standard Merriam-Webster defines it as “the introduction of something new” or “a new method, idea, or device.” The web, of course is full of contextual definitions: some say innovation has to lead to “tangible societal impact” while others believe it simply captures “the ability to deliver new value to a customer.”

The discussion history behind the Wikipedia page on innovation is an example of the challenge to reconcile different interpretations. And Bruce Nussbaum started a good debate by suggesting that “‘Innovation’ died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve.” If one thing is clear, it is that innovation means different things to different people.

In preparation for a brainstorm session, I read a few articles and online discussions about innovation. But I also wanted to get a feel for its everyday perception: “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘innovation’?” I threw this question out there through email, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and was happy to get more than 100 answers, which I put in the video above.

Now, the video is a collection of anecdotal thoughts, not an attempt at a definition. I just wanted to know the first thought that people had when hearing ‘innovation.’ People who responded are either people I know or colleagues/friends/family of people I know – with all sorts of backgrounds. It’s a quick, subjective litmus test on the perception of the word, and I was mostly wondering how many people would react negatively to it. It also turned out to be a nice visual kick-off for the brainstorm session with a client.

I was amazed by all the great, fast responses I received, and actually encouraged that the majority was positive or neutral. This should be an incentive to keep filling innovation with meaning – not just with verbiage – especially in a business context. I also found it interesting that a number of people included in their answers that innovation does not necessarily have to be something altogether new. Does an idea need to be original to be called innovative, or at what point can an improvement on something existing be called an innovation?

Scott Berkun’s perspective is that innovation is always relative : “[…] the trick to innovation is to widen your perspective on what qualifies as new. As long as your idea, or your use of an existing idea, is new to the person you are creating it for, or applies an existing concept in a new way, you qualify as an innovator from their point of view, and that’s all that matters.”

That approach is quite broad. But when push comes to shove, I’d say benefit trumps originality. If something has had a positive impact for a group of people, it may be okay to call it innovation, even if it turns out that the concept – in a slightly different form – has been around elsewhere. And one man’s innovation may be another man’s incrementalism. But it is important that the outcome of “innovation” is actually meaningful to people beyond the one coming up with the idea (or the description).

As one of the respondents to my question put it: “something others say about you rather than what you say about yourself.”

Here are links to websites and blogs about innovation:

BusinessWeek Innovation & Design
BusinessWeek: The most innovative companies 2009
McKinsey What Matters: Innovation
Business Strategy Innovation
Scott Berkun’s essay: How to innovate right now
Scott Anthony – Innovation Insights Blog
Scott Anthony – What makes a company “The World’s most innovative”?
Knowledge@Wharton: Innovation and Entrepreneurship
USC Stevens Institute for Innovation

[cross-posted from highroad.com/blog]